Fallen Angel - Excerpt
by Willa Cline
He showed up just as Sarah was getting ready to close the shop for the night. It had been a fairly slow day, and, at a few minutes before nine o'clock, she was walking around the store straightening up the shelves, aligning the spines of the books, picking up stray coffee cups that customers had left in the corners, and running a dust cloth over any flat surface she came across. Sarah had sent Cate, one of the part-time clerks, home at 8:00, and there had been no customers since then. It would get busier in the next few weeks--the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the busiest of the year--but tonight the bookshop was quiet, and she was enjoying it without the distraction of the customers who, she knew she had to admit, allowed her to keep it open.
She loved the bookstore and had always wanted to own one, but she often thought that it was just the shop itself she wanted, and not the problems and hassles of actually running it. She didn't enjoy the bookkeeping aspects of it, she didn't enjoy supervising her small staff--although the two young people who worked for her part time really didn't need much supervising, since she had either done a good job in hiring them or just been exceptionally lucky--and frankly she didn't much enjoy dealing with the customers. She found it hard to make small talk with the locals, and she never really knew what to say to the tourists, feeling she didn't really belong in either camp. She made a good show of it, though, and probably no one else really knew how difficult it was for her to spend entire days in the company of other people.
Still, she knew it was good for her, it kept her busy, and there were certainly worse ways to make a living. She often thought she might have been happier working in a library somewhere, but this was the life she had chosen for the moment, and she'd keep at it, for awhile anyway. She did enjoy the beautiful old shop with its hardwood floors and the old-fashioned wooden counter, and the small things she had added, like the big brass coffee urn on its table in the corner, made it seem almost as much a home to her now as her little house near the beach.
It was Sophie's home, too, of course--the big old longhaired cat had come with the shop. The previous owner had left in a rush, leaving a desk full of personal papers, an apartment full of furniture in the rooms above the shop, and Sophie. He had been starting a new life, too, running off with a new lover, and for a few months Sarah expected him to show up any day, wanting to claim the things he had left. She had finally cleaned out the desk and packed the personal papers in a box, which she stored in the back of the store, and after a few months, she'd rented the upstairs apartment to an elderly couple that only used it a few months out of the year, which suited her just fine.
They were there often enough to make her feel comfortable with them—they no longer felt like strangers—but gone enough that she never felt like they smothered her. It was a nice arrangement for everyone, and if he ever did show up, she would happily hand over the boxes of papers, but fight to the death to keep Sophie.
Her back was to the door as she stood between two tall shelves of books, and she thought she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Thinking maybe it was the cat, she called out softly, "Soph?" but there was no answering meow. She moved out into the open area of the shop and saw a man standing in front of the table of local interest books: books on seashells, marine life, beach preservation, Florida history. The locals generally knew all that, of course, or else they weren't interested and didn't care, but tourists expected it in a Florida bookshop. They needed to be able to buy books by Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry and John D. McDonald, and they liked to find them all in one place. "Local Interest" was a mainstay of a bookstore in a Florida tourist town.
The brass bell hanging from the front door handle hadn't rung, unless she'd been so engrossed in her own thoughts that she hadn't heard it. "Hello!" she called as she approached him. "Can I help you with anything?" He turned and smiled. "No, thank you, just looking." He was tall, with dark hair curling over his collar, pale skin, and dark circles under his eyes. He looked like someone who didn't get much sleep.
He also looked like he didn't belong in Florida--neither a local nor a tourist. For one thing, he was dressed like someone from one of the northern cities: black jeans, black T-shirt, black boots, and, most unusual of all, a long black overcoat. Even in November, that was something you didn't see often in Florida. That, more than the fact that he wasn't wearing the obligatory shorts and Hawaiian print shirt, marked him as something other than the ordinary tourist.
She noticed that he had picked up a copy of "Seashells of the Gulf Coast" and was flipping idly through it. "Okay," she said, "Let me know if you need anything," and turned back to her dusting. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, and found him looking at her, but when he saw her looking, he quickly turned back to the book.
Fine, she thought. But don't pretend you're interested in seashells, of all things.
She finished the dusting, folded the cloth, and then leaned over the sales counter to put it back in the drawer. When she straightened up again, the man was gone. Good, she thought. She could close the shop and head home--it was close enough to closing time that she doubted any other customers would be coming in. And the guy had spooked her just a little; she was glad he had gone, and eager to lock the door. Although, come to think of it, she hadn't heard the bell ring that time, either.
Musing on that, she walked toward the back of the store to get her bag from the office. And there he was again. "Oh!" she cried, startled. He was standing in front of the table where she kept a small collection of gift items and tourist souvenirs, eyes closed, holding something in his closed fist. Apparently feeling her looking at him, he opened his eyes and his fist at the same time, and she saw that he had been holding a large quartz crystal.
"This is a good one," he said, smiling, and held it out to her on his open palm.
She looked up at him and, startled again, saw that his eyes were a pale, almost silvery blue. She hadn't noticed that before, but maybe she just hadn't been close enough to see. She held out her hand to take the crystal from him, but rather than letting her pick it up, he held it and placed it gently in her palm. "A good one, huh?" she asked, and he said, "Yes, it is. Nice vibrations."
"Uh huh. Did you want to buy it?"
"No, just . . . browsing."
"Okay," she said, setting the crystal back down on the table among the others. "Well, I'm getting ready to close the shop, can I help you with anything else?"
He stood there for a moment as if debating whether she could help him with anything (perhaps the shell book, or maybe the crystal after all), but then shook his head. "No, I won't keep you. Good night."
He moved away toward the door, and she watched him for a moment before saying, "Good night, then," and locked the door behind him.
She walked slowly back to the table with the crystals and moved a few things around, creating a more pleasing arrangement. Two wooden shelves hung on the wall behind the table, holding blank journals, decks of tarot cards, and a few CDs. There were crystals and stones and shells on the table, along with several brass figurines and, as it grew closer to Christmastime, some snowscape globes with beach scenes inside.
Fearful of turning the bookshop into a gift shop, Sarah tried not to buy too many of these kinds of things, but she liked having them around, and it did draw in a few people who might not otherwise visit the bookstore. She liked the energy that they brought to the shop, too; while she'd never stoop to talking about "vibrations," there were certain stones and bits of crystal that made her happy just to touch them.
She picked up the big clear crystal that the man had held and carried it back to the sales counter with her. She thought about it for a moment, gazing at nothing, then stuck it in the pocket of her skirt.
Sophie was sound asleep in the upholstered chair in the corner of Sarah's office, and Sarah stroked her smooth warm head on her way by. "'Nite, Soph," she said, "Sleep tight, see you in the morning." She made sure the catŐs water and food dishes were full, then hoisted her tote bag onto her shoulder, turned out the lights, and locked the door for the second time that night.
Pulling on the handle to be sure the lock was engaged, she turned and glanced down the street. Finley's was one of several small shops just outside the main shopping district. There was a small combination deli, grocery and ice cream shop next door, a drugstore and souvenir shop the next door down, and a fairly exclusive dress shop next door to that. This little row of shops was far enough off the main drag to have the marginally lower rent that went with the slightly less desirable location, but close enough to get the benefit of the foot traffic from the more expensive shops. It was an ideal location as far as Sarah was concerned.
There were several nice restaurants and bars in the area, and there were usually enough people around, even late in the evenings, that she didn't feel uncomfortable when she left the store after dark to walk home. Tonight, though, it seemed unnaturally quiet, with no couples walking down the sidewalk arm in arm, no groups of laughing teenagers exiting the ice cream shop. It was eerily quiet, as a matter of fact, and dark, with no moon in the sky.
She thought she saw a shadow in the distance by a row of parked cars that might have been the man from the bookstore, but with no moon and only the streetlights for illumination, she couldn't be sure. It didn't matter anyway--what was she going to do, call for help because a guy was a little offbeat and wasn't dressed like a regular tourist?
Sarah had a Volkswagen beetle--a chartreuse one--that she drove to work occasionally, but parking was such a pain and her little house so close that she almost always walked to work. She had walked today, but as she turned toward home, she was wishing she could jump into a car and slam down the lock buttons. Oh well. No sense dwelling on the impossible. She settled her bag more firmly on her shoulder and set off for home. It was only a few blocks.
She could hear the ocean lapping at the beach on the other side of the street, but apart from that, the night was almost completely silent. A few streetlights cast a watery yellow glow onto the sidewalk, and she counted them by habit, her ritual as she walked home each evening. There were seven of them on her way home; lucky seven. As she passed below the third one, it flickered, buzzed for a moment, and then went dark with a hiss, making her gasp. Nice dramatic moment, Sarah thought. The perfect finale to an unsettling evening. Well done! She imagined giving a standing ovation to whomever, whatever, orchestrated events like this. Surely there must be someone, things like that were just too perfect. She shook her head, and wondered if the man was still back there, or if he had gone home or gone somewhere, back from wherever he had come.
She felt a little prickle on the back of her neck, as if someone was watching her, but she refused to give in to the temptation to turn around and look. She felt like a child, haunted by a spectral "boogie man," and she had a sudden impulse to hike up her skirts and run for home.
She didn't run, but she definitely hurried the last block, wrapping her hand firmly around the keys in her pocket so she would be ready to stick the house key in the lock as soon as she climbed onto the porch. The house was dark--she'd forgotten to leave a light on again. As soon as the door was open, she felt along the wall for the switch that turned on the lamp inside the door, and nearly fell as something streaked between her legs and out the front door.
"Dinah!" she shouted. "Dinah, get back in here!" The cat didn't come back, though, and since she was as black as the night, there was no way Sarah would be able to find her in the dark. "Fine, stay out there, then," she said, and closed the door.
Dinah was her cat, as opposed to Sophie, whom she thought of as the "office cat." The two had never met, and she doubted they ever would, although she had briefly entertained the idea of co-mingling them--taking Dinah to work some days, and bringing Sophie home sometimes to sleep in the bed with them. But she never had. She didn't really want to upset either of them, and she had a feeling they wouldn't get along. Sophie was getting on in years and Sarah thought of her as she might an elderly aunt--sedate, solemn, easily disturbed by changes in routine. Dinah, on the other hand, was young, only a little over two years old, and still possessed of the exuberance and belief in invulnerability of a kitten.
She'd shown up on Sarah's doorstep a few weeks after she'd moved into the house; Sarah had nearly stepped on her as she'd gone out for the mail early one morning. The tiny black kitten lay curled in a ball on the doormat, and when Sarah stumbled over her, only looked up with hopeful eyes and a tiny "Mew?" She had lived with Sarah ever since, keeping her company during the long dark nights, and occasionally escaping, as tonight, to prowl the scrub and sea grass at the edge of the beach.
Even though Sarah doubted there was anything out there big enough to carry off a cat, she didn't like having Dinah outside. Not that there was anything she could do about it now. She could call her until she was hoarse, but she knew she wouldn't come. Let her have her adventure. She was sure she'd find her curled up on the doormat in the morning.
* * *
Dumping her bag on the floor inside the front door and kicking off her sandals, she padded into the kitchen in her bare feet. She opened the refrigerator and took stock, pulling out an apple, a brick of cheese in a plastic bag, and a half-empty bottle of white wine. Tucking the wine bottle under her arm, she found a box of crackers and a wine glass in the cupboard, then carried everything into the living room, where she put it on the little wooden table beside her favorite chair, a chintz covered upholstered one that sat in the corner by the back door. She had her special little corner built there: the chair and a needlepoint footstool, a small round table beside the chair with a lamp, a stack of books on a shelf underneath, and an afghan flung over the back of the chair for the nights when it seemed like too much trouble to get up and go to bed. She needed to stop doing that--one of the many things. She needed to start going to bed "at a decent hour" (as her mother would say) instead of falling asleep in the chair with a book in her lap. She took a bite out of the apple.
She also knew she should have a "proper" dinner, as her mother would also say, but that was both the blessing and the curse of living alone--she seldom took the trouble to cook for herself, and since there was no one else there to cook for, either, cooking just never got done. She remembered that she loved to cook once, but it seemed like a lifetime ago. She had studied cookbooks and pondered ingredients, and enjoyed creating beautiful meals. She still tried to have things that were pleasing to look at--the apple and cheese and sparkling glass of wine were at least aesthetically pleasing, if not completely nutritious--but she no longer worried about making actual meals.
Maybe once or twice a week she would eat in a restaurant with a friend or someone from the store, but more often than not it was crackers and cheese or a frozen dinner from the stash in the freezer, and inevitably the glass (or more) of wine. The wine helped to keep the demons at bay and helped her sleep, and she felt only a little guilty for needing it. Someday she'd stop, but not today, not now. She knew it was bad for her--maybe not physically, but emotionally, psychologically. She knew that she used it to dull her memories, but she figured as long as she confined it to her evenings at home and didn't take to keeping a bottle in her desk at work, she was okay. She understood what she was doing, and while it made her feel weak, well, she was weak, she could admit it. Until she figured out another way to handle her problems, she would keep self-medicating. She didn't fool herself that it was harmless, but it was the least of her worries for now.
Feeling a little chilled despite the warm evening, she decided a bath might warm her up. She carried her wine glass into the bathroom and set it on the counter, then lit a short candle in a porcelain dish that she kept on the sink. As the tub began to fill, she stripped off her clothes and poured a little lavender-scented bath oil into the water, then slipped naked into the tub and closed her eyes.
* * *
Sarah woke with a start, shivering, the room dark, the bathwater cold around her. The candle had burned out, and the wine stood undisturbed on the counter. She couldn't remember the last time she'd fallen asleep so easily, but, she thought, she could have chosen a more comfortable spot! She briefly considered refilling the tub with hot water, but she didn't know how long she'd been asleep and thought she might as well get out and try to get some sleep in an actual bed. As she stepped out of the tub, she narrowly missed stepping on Dinah, curled up on the bathmat, sound asleep.
"How'd you get back in?" she asked the cat, sleepily, but Dinah didn't answer.
Rubbing herself with a towel to try to get warm, she padded into the bedroom, got into bed, pulled her grandmother's quilt over her, and fell back to sleep.
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